What's Tony Thinking

From the Wallowas


Mid-way through August and signs of seasonal change hint autumn. The days are shorter now, and the sun’s migration south well underway.

The berries on the Western Ash tree have turned from green to yellow to bright orange. The robins and cedar waxwings are gorging on the berries to the point of reeling drunken in the grass. I’m not sure what the intoxicant is in the berries, but wobbling robins are pretty funny.

And the salmon are spawning. Not yet the Kokanee from Wallowa Lake, but Chinook salmon in the nearby Lostine River. Efforts to restore the salmon run in the Lostine have been underway for several decades now. 

Yesterday we heard a presentation from a retired fisheries biologist, Mary Edwards, on this work. She had spent the last sixteen years under water in the Lostine dressed in dry suit, mask and snorkel, photographing their return. She describes her photos as “waterscapes.”

Because its waters flow from the 10,000 foot Eagle Cap Wilderness, the Lostine is a very cold and clear river — conditions that are just right for trout and salmon. 

It is beyond amazing that these fish make it back. It is a 1600 plus mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to the upper Lostine. Fish have to negotiate eight main stem dams on the Columbia in order to get here and carve out their “redds,” or egg nests, in the rock and gravel of the Lostine. Using their tails like scoops, the females move river stone to build a nest. After the eggs are laid and fertilized by an attending male, they cover the redds over as their final act. Their decomposing bodies are then a huge source of nourishment to the river and its other inhabitants.

In contrast to the larger, nearby Wallowa River, the Lostine River was not channelized, read “straightened.” Sometime in the 1940’s or 50’s bulldozers rumbled into the Wallowa River to relocate and straighten it. It was pushed to the west side of the valley and straightened, which destroyed it as a salmon run. Now efforts are underway to restore meanders, to slow the flow and making it more habitable for fish. 

Will the salmon run continue to grow? Hard to say. So many factors come into play. Warming oceans, the slower and warmer Columbia and Snake Rivers, the hydroelectric dams, yearly water flow. People are trying. There has been remarkable cooperation here between those working to restore the fishery and the farmers who draw on the rivers for irrigation. 

Other signs of the season’s change are the cooler nights. Not cold, not yet, but cooler. Over all, it has been a relatively cool summer. I’m not sure we ever got to 90. And, wonder of wonders, no wildfire smoke — at least not yet. It has been a “super-water” year with a better than normal snowpack which melted slowly in the cool spring. There could be fresh snow in the mountains in the next couple weeks. I’ve been “snowed out” on a late August backpacking trips more than once. 

We made a big change this summer, installing a small wood stove in the family cabin. We have an ancient, picturesque fireplace, but as a heat source it is inefficient. The new Vermont Castings stove should extend our time here through October.

The Larch trees are just beginning their seasonal turn to from green to gold. While a conifer, the Larch are like a decidious tree, their needles turning color before falling. Some call them “Tamaracks.” Bands of Larch/ Tamaracks wind like golden threads through the forests of the Wallowa mountains, alongside the Douglas Fir, White Fir, Aspen and Ponderosa Pine. 

Soon the Kokanee salmon whill be spawning up the Wallowa River from the Lake. They turn a bright red/ orange as they spawn, transforming the greens and blues of the river into a fluid, stained glass mosaic. 

We return to Seattle the middle of next week. With my sons, Joe and Nick, I will ride the RSVP (Ride Seattle to Vancouver Party), a two-day, 200 mile ride on Friday and Saturday. How fortunate I am, at age 71, to take part in such an adventure. 

May what remains of summer, officially another six weeks, bless you with wild berries, startling sunsets and gratitude for the rhythm of the seasons. 

Categories: Uncategorized